Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Artistic Consumption Log, Nov. 7, 2011 - Nov. 13, 2011

NEW YORK—Forgive my lateness with this, readers.

That's all I'll give you all by way of introduction. Onwards and upwards!

Last Life in the Universe (2003)


DOC NYC 2011, all films seen at IFC Center in New York:
Minka (2011, Davina Pardo)
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (2011, Lucy Walker)
The Interrupters (2011, Steve James)
I wrote about the first two short films for The House Next Door; here's the link. As for The Interrupters...well, believe the hype: This is as inspiring as true-life stories get, without sugarcoating. Steve James—inspired by an article written by Alex Kotlowitz (who gets a co-directing credit) that was published in The New York Times Magazine—stays enough out of the way of the four main "interrupters" he documents to allow us to draw our own conclusions as to how much they are succeeding in their attempts to prevent violence in an inner-city Chicago neighborhood; still, it's hard to deny the heroic nature of their efforts, and this film is a worthy tribute to them.

Dead Birds (1965, Robert Gardner), seen at Film Forum in New York
I had never heard of Robert Gardner before hearing about Film Forum's ongoing week-long retrospective of his work, but since I had been on something of a documentary kick before then, I decided to take a chance on this one film of his, at least.

Based on what I've read about him in addition to this one feature documentary of his, Gardner is a documentary filmmaker with a strong ethnographic bent; to wit, Dead Birds is an engrossing, unsparing look at a tribe in New Guinea that seems to exist out of time: a Stone Age group of people with their own customs and traditions, especially regarding war. By itself, that sounds like a reasonably interesting subject for a documentary feature; Dead Birds, however, is enhanced by a voiceover narration that occasionally verges on the poetic (or at least, poetic enough to get me to wonder whether Gardner actually spoke to these tribespeople—there are no talking-heads interview scenes in this—or whether all of his psychologizing is merely speculative). I wouldn't necessarily call this a "humanist" film in the usual sense; it's too anthropological in its approach. But, whether Gardner intended this or not, one could see Dead Birds as a disturbing reminder of how far humanity has come as a species, and perhaps even how much of the Stone Age we may still have in all of us, deep down. (I mean, we still engage in warfare after all, do we not?)

On a tangentially related note, Dead Birds seems like the kind of documentary that Ruggero Deodato tried to evoke in Cannibal Holocaust. Also, like Cannibal Holocaust, it shows graphic, un-simulated animal slaughter onscreen. No turtles get killed and mutilated, but pigs do get slaughtered, gutted and cooked. Warning: Animals were definitely harmed during the making of this film.

J. Edgar (2011, Clint Eastwood), seen at Regal Union Square Stadium 14 in New York
This film isn't as bad as some of its advance press might have led you to believe. Yes, some of the acting is uneven (some of the real-life supporting characters—like Jeffrey Donovan's Robert Kennedy and Dermot Mulroney's Richard Nixon—are played like risible caricatures for no reason I could determine), and some of the aging make-up effects are dreadful (the old Clyde Tolson especially looks ghoulishly wooden Indian-like in his make-up). But Eastwood is working with a worthy screenplay from Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black that is as multifaceted in its far-from-reverent take on Hoover as it is structurally ambitious in the way it weaves its way between past and present, truths and half-truths. Leonardo DiCaprio at first seems like he's giving a bad performance, especially with that blatantly fake-sounding accent...but then, look at the way he plays off so effortlessly against Armie Hammer's Clyde Tolson, and one starts to wonder if DiCaprio isn't being bad elsewhere on purpose—mirroring a character who lived much of his life giving a performance for the public eye in the service of the federal organization he created and continued to hold dear until his last days. I'm not sure this film will necessary bring Eastwood skeptics back into his good graces (all of his trademarks as a director are here, for better and for worse, especially his damned penchant for washed-out colors, courtesy of cinematographer Tom Stern), but it's an interesting film in unexpected ways.

Last Life in the Universe (2003, Pen-ek Ratanaruang), seen at Museum of Modern Art in New York [third viewing]
Apparently the Region 1 DVD of this film I've been watching all these years has featured a sped-up PAL transfer and I didn't know it!

PAL, for those of you who aren't, like, home-video nerds, refers to one of three different analogue television systems that exist in the world, the others being NTSC and SECAM. One of the major differences between all three systems has to do with video frame rates; PAL televisions operate at 25 frames per second, while NTSC TVs play 30 frames/second video. (Most U.S. televisions are NTSC, for instance; most European televisions are PAL.) Since most films are shot at 24 frames per second, for their eventual home-video releases they have to be converted to run at the appropriate frame rate—and for the DVD format, at least, there is no way to make video transfers compatible for both NTSC and PAL formats at the same time. In the case of transfers for the PAL system, though—well, unlike with NTSC, where there is a way to transfer a 24-frames-per-second film to 30 without having to speed up the film's frame rate, there is apparently no way to transfers a 24fps film to 25 without speeding up the whole film, not only making the film play with a shorter running time, but also speeding up the soundtrack so that its pitch throughout is a semitone sharp. Most people, I suspect, won't notice that sharp pitch...but I have perfect pitch, so I do notice such things, and it can potentially distract me from the film itself if I'm aware that I'm not watching it at its correct pitch.

Or, at least, I though I had perfect pitch...but maybe not? I usually pride myself at being able to pick up, just by looking at a DVD image or listening to a soundtrack, whether it has undergone that "PAL speed-up." So consider me surprised when I sat down to watch Last Life in the Universe at Museum of Modern Art and began to realize that everything sounded slightly flat pitch-wise compared with what I was used to watching on the Palm Pictures DVD I own. This realization only made me treasure the experience of seeing Pen-ek Ratanaruang's film in a theater even more—because I was finally seeing it pure, without any digital-transfer tinkering.

I don't expect most of you to care about anything I just said; I'm just explaining to you all why I enjoyed seeing Last Life in the Universe for the first time theatrically as much as I did. It doesn't hurt that I love this film—a gloriously dreamy meditation on embracing the messiness of life—so much that, on most days, yes, I probably would consider it among my top five favorites of all time. (I elaborate briefly on why I adore this film so much in this old, old House Next Door post.)


Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10 (1982, Herbert von Karajan/Berlin Philharmonic) [second listen]
Two Saturdays ago, while wandering aimlessly in Greenwich Village, I encountered a street fair that included a lot of vendors selling different goods. A handful of them were record vendors selling LPs, CDs and DVDs. At one of them, I encountered a copy of the original CD release of this 1982 recording of Dmitri Shostakovich's Tenth Symphony featuring the Berlin Philharmonic led by the legendary Austrian maestro Herbert von Karajan. It was only $5, so I decided to buy it.

I hadn't heard this performance in years, and barely remembered it save for the orchestra's awesome virtuosity in dispatching its demonic second movement, a whirlwind scherzo that, according to the composer in his memoir Testimony, was meant to be a portrait of Stalin. So it was good to reacquaint myself with this recording, which turns out to have other pleasures and insights to offer in this, his first symphony after he was denounced for a second time by the Soviet government in 1948.

Shostakovich (1906-75) spent much of his career struggling to find a balance between expressing his private pains and publicly toeing the party line, so to speak; this led him to compose just as many works of empty Communist rhetoric (hear, for instance, his notoriously bombastic Twelfth Symphony, as close to musical Soviet poster art as any composer ever got) as he did deeply, sometimes mystifyingly personal works of musical and emotional substance. His Tenth Symphony is considered one of the latter, however, and in this 1982 recording it found a surprisingly sympathetic interpreter in Karajan, who captures the full measure of its tragic pathos and wounding ironies. The third and fourth movements of the Tenth features a four-note motif that Shostakovich considered his own "musical signature"; the aural spectacle of hearing that four-note signature triumphantly, demonically tap-dancing on Stalin's grave at the exhilarating end of this symphony is worth waiting for.

Vespertine (2001, Björk)
Medúlla (2004, Björk)
With its gorgeous toy-chest sonorities and fairy-tale lyricism, Vespertine is probably my favorite Björk album so far. Medúlla is a far more earth-bound achievement compared to it; an experiment in a cappella music-making with a certain measure of electronic manipulation, it's less immediately appealing but still fresh and interesting.


Satyagraha (1980, Philip Glass/Constance de Jong), seen at Metropolitan Opera House in New York
Yes, I paid a fortune to see this, a revival of a celebrated Metropolitan Opera production of Philip Glass's 1980 opera from a couple of years ago...but it was totally worth it.

Glass's famously minimalist musical style is by now perhaps too familiar: rippling patterns repeated almost endlessly with minor variations that, in the right frame of mind, could induce a genuinely hypnotic state in a listener. You might not think that such a style might work all that well in an operatic work like this one...but Satyagraha is no ordinary opera. It isn't so much a drama as it is an abstract meditation on political and philosophical themes, taking Mohandas Gandhi's development of his philosophy of nonviolence as its starting point. The brilliance of Glass's Satyagraha score is that it has just enough variety and lyricism in its patterns and repetitions to be stimulating on a "conventional" musical level, but is also nondescript enough to allow both a listener enough room to intellectual contemplation, and a stage director enough creative wiggle room to illustrate the content with all the imagination he/she can muster. So it proved in this production, where the music was sometimes secondary to director Phelim McDermott's thrillingly imaginative stage effects—newspapers that formed into objects/characters, rear projected text translations (Constance de Jong's libretto is in Sanskrit, based on the Bhagavad Gita), and so on. Satyagraha, in other words, is a complete theatrical experience, the kind of Gesamtkunstwerk Richard Wagner held as an ideal for his operas—and frankly, after seeing it, I wonder whether a standalone audio recording would be half as effective without the visual component to go along with it.

The only possible "flaw" in Satyagraha is a third act—depicting the 1913 New Castle March, in which Gandhi, along with his Satyagraha army, encouraged striking miners to march all of 36 miles to the Transvaal border to protest racially discriminatory laws in India—that rather drags. But even then, there's a purpose to the slower pace: I, for one, gradually began to feel something not only the full extent of the long journey traversed, but also the full weight of their struggle. And the sense of heroic catharsis that greets you as it reaches its concluding "Evening Song" makes it all worth the time it takes to get there.


Boroughs of the Dead (2011, Andrea Janes)
A friend of mine wrote this self-published collection of 10 short horror stories set in an around New York City in both past and present times, so I can't say I read this as a completely unbiased party. So all I'll say here is that, while not all the stories are equally great, generally I enjoyed this breezy and varied collection, and that its final story closes out the slim volume on a deliciously perverse note.

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